From Christian Peace and Nonviolence
I did something not long ago that I’ve always claimed I’d never do: I spanked my child. Not only did I spank him, but I did it in a moment of complete, unfettered rage. Even if you think spanking is effective discipline, everyone knows you’re not supposed to do it out of anger.
My five-year-old was disappointed that he couldn’t go to a picnic and was slamming doors, kicking and yelling, “Bad Mama!” (Considering what happened next, this was probably a fitting moniker.) The three-year-old and one-year-old were also throwing minor fits, and I was facing several more hours with these tykes. I was depleted, and after almost six years of parenting, I should have been able to read the handwriting on the wall: You are tired. You are angry. You will hurt your child if you do not shut yourself in the bathroom and repeat the Christ Prayer 20 times while breathing deeply.
But I couldn’t read the warning signs because my vision was blurred with fury –
Or maybe I chose not to read the signs, because rage has such a strangely delicious taste. So instead of walking away or praying or calling a friend, I grabbed my eldest with my left hand and delivered several robust whacks to his bottom with my right.
Fortunately my arms are puny, and fortunately I woke up from my fuming stupor after about five whacks. I held him close and apologized profusely, and somehow we both straightened up enough to make it through the evening with a semblance of normalcy.
Let me be clear: I know better. I’ve taken conflict transformation classes, and I’ve led trainings on anger management. Yet I have talked to enough other parents to know that I’m not the only one who should know better and doesn’t. Several friends admit to grabbing their children’s arms hard, and one friend slapped her son for repeatedly dropping a book out of a wagon.
So what can we do once we’ve faced the truth that we’re not the peaceable parents we’d like to be? I want to explore how we can forgive ourselves, how we can listen to our anger, how we can counteract our own fury with loving household rituals and how we can even transform our rage into a deeper, holier outrage at things that deserve our anger more than our children.
1. Find forgiveness.
Receiving forgiveness from a five-year-old is the easy part: forgiving myself is more difficult. Realizing that I can become furious enough to want to hurt a child is humiliating and terrifying. Before having children I didn’t understand, at least in any visceral way, the importance of confession. Now I find it a formative act, and one I need to perform every day.
I must also learn to distinguish between anger and action. In those fragile, shame-filled moments after wanting to hurt a child, I am tempted to consider my rage a sin. Later, however, as I unfurl the strands of emotion and incident that led to my outburst, I remember that conceptualizing anger as a sin is riskier than seeing it as a signal that something needs to be changed. “I wonder if controlling my anger also makes me angry,” writes Garret Keizer in The Enigma of Anger Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin. “Trying to see everyone’s point of view, trying to be patient beyond reason, trying to remember that the other person is also a child of God. . . how far do you go with all this before you explode from accumulated grievance?”
So while I seek forgiveness for my violence, I do not seek it for my anger. Instead I want to see my fury as a signal, a flare on the horizon that I’d do best not to ignore.
2. Learn to decipher my own code of anger.
Losing my temper takes me completely off-guard. But as Anne Lamott writes in her essay, “Mother Anger: Theory and Practice”: When we blow up at our kids, we only think we’re going from zero to 60 in one second. Our surface and persona are so calm that when the problem first begins, we sound in control when we say, ‘Now, honey, stop that,’ or ‘that’s enough.’ But it’s only an illusion,” she writes. “Because actually we’ve been storing up grievances all day – against husbands and bosses and mother and neighbors – and not been aware of them. So when the problem with your kid starts up, you’re actually starting at 59, only you’re not moving. You’re in high idle already, but you are not even aware of how vulnerable and disrespected you already feel.”
Reading my own anger also means developing rituals of release that allow me to vent in a way that doesn’t hurt myself or my children. Maybe I should take my own advice to my kids and go punch a pillow. I’ve been known to yell at the couch, and my sister-in-law admits to emitting a foghorn-like cry before yelling. “Uh, oh, Mama’s gonna blow!” It’s amazing how thin the line is between rage and humor and how healing the crossing of it can be.
3. Sanctify my house as often as I rage within it.
When my family sits down for dinner, we light four candles before we pray: one for God the Creator, one for God who came in Jesus, one for God who comforts us through the Holy Spirit, and one for someone we want to pray for that evening. At bedtime we read, pray, and sing hymns. These small acts work as flags of sorts, ways to stake my family’s loyalty to God’s reign of peace and love rather than to the government of our fickle emotions.
While wallowing in parental shame, I underestimate the power of rituals like these. Such traditions function as antidotes to the angry episodes that all households experience. “The sanctification of our household through prayer, custom and ceremonies of tenderness works to curb “anger,” writes Keizer. At the most basic level, sacramental acts give our children memories of us when we’re not seething ogres. They remind us of our own commitments to peaceful living, which run stronger and deeper than a day of shouting and spanking here and there. Such traditions also help us reground ourselves in our love for our children: it’s harder to scream at someone when you remember you have to sing and pray with them in a couple hours.
4. Follow the path of my household frustrations toward holier anger.
The irony of parental anger is that in a world where there is much to be angry about – injustice, war, racism, sexism – I express my anger most strongly at those who deserve it least: children. How is it that I rage more often at three little preschoolers than at the sin and inequity that deprive millions of food and water and education? How can I fume more often at the insolence of a five-year-old than I do at the disrespect humans show to God through our disregard for creation?
Perhaps I can learn to shift the target of my anger from my children to these larger issues of transfiguring anger from rage to outrage. “Rage, or what might be called untransfigured anger, can become a calcified bitterness,” Monk Kidd writes in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. “What rage wants and needs is to move outward toward positive social purpose. . . Outrage is love’s wild and unacknowledged sister.”
Holy outrage is what motivated Christ to overturn the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. Perhaps my anger at the small particulars of household life with children – tantrums, clutter, and whining – can be transfigured into holy outrage at the things that enrage God.
It is important to discern when one’s anger can be dealt with through a few commitments like these and when one’s rage is truly injuring others or ourselves. We may need the help of pastors or friends to determine this.
Most parents I know, however, are too hard on themselves. For them, Keizer provides a reassuring image. “A house where no one ever gets mad might not be any more healthy to live in than a house where no one ever opens a window,” he writes. “Aside from the obvious pathological exceptions, I do not think it is the big blows that cause the greatest harm anyway, but rather the constant and petty outbreaks of simmering ill temper – what the poet [Robert] Hayden so aptly calls, ‘the chronic angers of that house.'”
It’s disconcerting to realize that anger is a force that I and my household will always need to harness. Yet it’s also strangely comforting to think that I will have many opportunities to practice these commitments. Carla Barnhill, in her book, The Myth of the Perfect Mother, writes that motherhood – and I would add, fatherhood – is best conceived not as a job or an identity but as a practice through which we are formed. Drawing from Alasdair MacIntyre’s idea that an ethical life includes a cycle of practices that, upon perseverance, turn into virtues, Barnhill conceives of parenthood as not unlike scripture reading, fasting, and worship. Only through practice are such spiritual disciplines able to form us into the likeness of Christ. “What matters in the practice of mothering is our willingness to be open to God’s work in our lives, our ability to grow and change with our children, our vulnerability and honesty in the face of the challenges that every brand of spiritual development presents,” Barnhill writes.
When we view parenting as a spiritual discipline, Jesus’s answer to his disciples’ question about how often they should forgive suddenly doesn’t sound so exaggerated. “Seventy times seven” sounds low actually, when one considers the unrelenting practice of parenting.
In fact, in light of my commitment to peacemaking and my consistent inability to live it out, “seventy times seven” doesn’t sound anything like drudgery or obligation. It sounds a lot more like a second and third – and 490th – chance for one fuming, tired parent to find God’s grace.